Bujumbura has got all the substance required to turn Burundi’s backwater capital into an African success story and the country’s upcoming elections are a chance to create lasting peace after 15 years of civil war. But corruption could still derail the dream.
Tracking down Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, is not difficult. Almost every afternoon, as the sun sets over Lake Tanganyika, the stocky 45-year-old can be found on the same pitch playing central defence for his beloved football team, the Halleluyah FC. It’s always easy for the beer-sipping expats at the neighbouring boules club to tell when the president, who is an ex-rebel and born-again Christian, is in the team. The pick-up truck parked outside with a heavy machine gun on the back and the liberally armed soldiers acting as ball boys are a bit of a giveaway.
As the capital of a country that has officially been at peace for less than six months, Bujumbura manages, in some ways, to be laid back and on edge at the same time. Wedged between rugged mountains and the shores of Lake Tanganyika, it has the air of a moderately sized, slightly run-down Mediterranean beach resort except that the people riding the motorbike taxis down EU-built roads are former child soldiers. Studded with art-deco architecture, the city offers some of the best beaches, restaurants and nightlife in the region – even if it has cholera outbreaks and armed banditry.
Now as Burundi, a tiny, heavily francophone country of nearly nine million located close to the heart of Africa, tries desperately to shrug off 15 years of civil war, officials in the city are pushing to attract investors in a bid to kick-start an economic recovery. “Peace and security allow people to live and investors to start doing business,” says trade, industry and tourism minister, Euphrasie Bigirimana. “Now that we have peace we have to consolidate it and the best way to do that is to bring in investment.”
In the current atmosphere of precarious optimism, Bujumbura is awash with grandiose development plans. These range from mining nickel reserves and prospecting for oil under Lake Tanganyika to becoming the bread basket of East Africa, reinvigorating a defunct textile industry and privatising the country’s ailing coffee and tea industries.
Given Bujumbura’s spectacular and strategic location between East and Central Africa, tourism and transport are also near the top of the list.
Introduced late last year, a new investment code offers tax breaks and incentives to people looking to do business in the country. After years of international embargoes and isolation, recent entry into the East African Community has opened the country up to its larger, more affluent neighbours. But despite the positive talk, the majority of people here live on less than a dollar a day, with 96 per cent of the working population surviving on subsistence agriculture.
Although main roads in Bujumbura are new, energy infrastructure remains woefully underdeveloped and the country’s bureaucracy is bloated. Burundi still languishes towards the bottom of the World Bank’s ranking for ease of doing business and corruption is rife. Direct foreign investment remains minuscule and, for the most part, informal.
“There is still a lack of legal certainty for investors,” says Julien Bouzon, head of the European Commission’s Economy and Society section in Burundi. “Tax regulations and many rules still remain unclear.” More importantly, potential investors, officials and local businessmen seem to be waiting and watching ahead of potentially combustible elections next year. “Everyone is talking about the elections and they could delay any investment in the country,” Bouzon says. “But over the past few months we have already seen a marked improvement in investor climate and, if the elections go smoothly, we’ll see an increase in people coming in.”
For a country with such a tumultuous history of political unrest, that is a big “if”. Burundi is most commonly seen as the forgotten twin of its northern neighbour, Rwanda. Both countries were administered as one by the Belgians until independence in 1962. Since then they have developed (or not developed) as mirror images of one another, torn apart by bitter conflicts between two major ethnic groups the Hutus and Tutsis. While the Hutu majority bloodily seized power in Rwanda at independence, the Tutsi minority remained in control in Burundi. Sporadic attempts by the Hutus to seize power resulted in retaliatory massacres. In 1972 approximately 200,000 Hutus were butchered in Burundi. A brief interval of hope saw international pressure push the Tutsi military dictatorship into allowing elections in 1993, only for the first elected Hutu president to be assassinated and the country plunged into war. By the time Rwanda exploded into genocide in April 1994, Burundi had slumped into civil conflict.
Now, while Rwanda has made ethnic differences a social and political taboo, Burundi has cemented them into the constitution. The army is split 50-50, as is the senate, and the cabinet is 60 per cent Hutu, 40 per cent Tutsi. Many in Burundi argue that this makes the country more stable. But if Burundi has opted for a different social model, then its leaders recognise that Rwanda offers an example of economic hope. Fuelled by what many see as an influx of guilt money from western donors, over the past 15 years Rwanda has become a minor economic miracle in Africa. The capital city, Kigali, has boomed and boasts shopping malls, supermarkets and a stock exchange. “Of course we look at what has happened in Kigali as an inspiration,” says Bujumbura’s mayor Evrard Giswaswa. “But we do not want to simply follow what is happening in Rwanda.”
The long war has stunted construction in the city but Bujumbura has natural assets that Kigali lacks, Giswaswa says. One man working to promote the city is Deo Ngendahayo, director of the National Office for Tourism.“Bujumbura has the beaches, nice hotels and a gastronomic history,” he says. “It is also the gateway to a remarkably varied country. In 25,000 sq km we have everything from beaches to mountains of over 2,600 metres.” With most of the country’s wildlife wiped out during the civil war, Ngendahayo has had to be inventive with his ideas, which include a marina along the lake in Bujumbura, developing water sports such as scuba-diving and hiring ex-rebels to give tours of battle sites.
During his 10 years running restaurants and clubs in Bujumbura, Rudy Ghirini, 36, says that the only time the town’s nightlife scene has been more lucrative was when the now-departed UN peacekeeping mission arrived in town.
“But back then we also had to deal with a curfew and shooting in the streets every night,” says Ghirini, a Belgian-Italian entrepreneur who was born in Bujumbura. “When people read about Bujumbura, they think it’s like Mogadishu. But things have changed here and this place is a party capital for all the countries around.”
Over the past six months, Ghirini and several expat business partners have invested $600,000 (€420,000) in building and renovating a number of venues in Bujumbura.
01 Lake Tanganyika – Bujumbura’s location on the shores of the world’s second deepest fresh-water lake is probably its best resource.
02 Tourism – The capital is trying to become a stop-over for tourists heading to Tanzania and Rwanda.
03 Nightlife – The city is already a draw for party people from the region.
04 Food – Belgian influence means that the city is dotted with charcuterie shops and patisseries.
05 Coffee and tea – Making up over 80 per cent of the country’s exports, Burundi’s tea and coffee industries are set to be parcelled off to private investors.
06 Minerals – Operations to extract nickel are moving ahead to the east of the capital. Reports say that there is also gold and coltan.
07 Oil – Although people tell you that there is oil under Lake Tanganyika, a better bet could be producing palm and avocado oil.
08 Flowers – Growers are eyeing the country as an alternative to Kenya for growing flowers for export.
01 Tourism: The postcards may have a 1970s sheen to them but the sights are still worth seeing.
02 Drum: Burundi is known as the “land of the drum”.
03 Tea: By far Burundi's biggest export. Ask anyone here and they will swear it’s the best in East Africa.
04 Avocado oil: This could be Burundi’s next big thing. While a half litre sells in Europe for €30, a bottle here costs around €4.50.
05 Exotic fruits: A breakfast of croissants covered in papaya jam is a pleasant way to start your day.
06 Chillies: Found in everything from cheese to sausage, chillies are a staple in Burundi's cooking.
07 Rice: According to the minister for planning and reconstruction, Burundi can become the principal rice producer for the whole of East.